Decades later, visiting the Pudding Shop made famous by Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, and Interviewing Hayes
By John Henderson
It’s the only restaurant in the world that credits its international fame to a drug bust.
The Pudding Shop’s menu doesn’t separate itself from the hundreds of other kabob shops around Istanbul, Türkiye.
Waiters sling doner kabob and shish kabob and onion rings around a room that’s almost always packed. The people don’t come for the food, although its namesake pudding with powdered pistachios and coconut do tingle the sweet tooth.
The Come for Nostalgia
They come for nostalgia. They let themselves drift back to 1969-70, the time when the Vietnam War raged and the world raged against it. Subscribing to Timothy Leary’s 1966 advice of “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” thousands dropped out of society and hit the trail.
They called it the Hippie Trail and it stretched through Europe all the way to Kathmandu, a 5,700-mile snake that charmed backpackers and budget travelers into another world.
Since time began Istanbul has been the gateway between the East and West. Since the 1960s, the Pudding Shop has been the nerve center for backpackers crossing continents. They gathered to exchange information, addresses and stories. They also ate a lot of pudding.
Sometimes they asked the question, “Where can I score some good hashish?”
One young American paid a heavy price for it. Consequently, the Pudding Shop has become one of the leading tourist attractions in a city full of them. It was the Pudding Shop where Billy Hayes met the man who took him to his first hash deal in 1969.
But after three successful scores over a year and a half, he got busted at the Istanbul airport and spent five years of a 30-year sentence in Turkish jails before escaping.
The experience turned into his bestselling book “Midnight Express” in 1977 and an Oscar-nominated movie of the same name the following year. The Oliver Stone film infuriated Turkish officials and terrified travelers. Istanbul Tourism plummeted.
Visiting The Pudding Shop in Istanbul
But on a cold, sunny day in late March, I could tell tourism is alive and well in Istanbul, especially in the Pudding Shop.
I entered the restaurant wanting to get back in touch with my inner backpacker. The walls are covered with news clippings about the restaurant and pictures of the Colpan family who’ve owned it since 1957.
I leaned near a wall to read a yellowed newspaper clipping from Flint, Mich., when an old man fingering prayer beads in a chair next to me asked, “You ever here before?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Thirty years ago.”
“Were you a hippie?”
“No, but I looked like one.”
”I was a hippie.”
“You the owner?”
Namik and his nephew Adem Colpan took over from their father, Idris, when he died in 1998. The place has changed a lot since those halcyon days when it was a melting pot of hippies and backpackers, adventurers, and draft dodgers. Back then it was called Lale Pastahanesi (Pastry Shop) and it only sold chocolate, Türkiye’s famed Turkish Delight sweets, and the restaurant’s trademark pudding.
Travelers covered a bulletin board with messages asking things like rides to Kashmir, if Afghanistan is safe and if can you recommend a good hotel in Goa. Today the board still exists but I saw messages praising the food, love notes and one from a man who came for the first time since he passed through on his way to Kathmandu in 1972. Another simply said, “OLD HIPPIES NEVER STOP TRAVLIN’. (sic)”
The menu has changed. In the 1970s, Idris knew they couldn’t survive on sweets alone and began offering traditional Turkish cuisine, heavy on roast meats but adding Western fare like bacon and eggs.
I didn’t see any traditional hippies or even backpackers. Instead, I saw a grab bag of middle-aged tourists speaking half a dozen languages. Adem said 90 percent of the clientele are tourists, many who pour through the door on package tours.
They’ve been coming for more than 40 years. Call it a tourist trap, but the Pudding Shop made so much money after the release of “Midnight Express,” the Colpans bought a nearby building and opened the Blue House Hotel.
“We were at the right place at the right time,” Adem told me.
Keep in mind this was not only before the Internet, it was before travel guidebooks. It was almost before travel. It wasn’t hard getting off the beaten path in the ‘60s because few paths in Eastern Europe and Asia were beaten.
“There was no tourism information at all,” Adem said. “Tourism did not start at that time. My father put up on the wall how to get to the Turkish bath, how to go to the consulate, how to go to the mosque and Tokapia. He was the only one in the area. (Travelers) kept telling each other, ‘See you in the Pudding Shop.’”
The contrast between today’s Istanbul before travel is hard to comprehend. The Pudding Shop is on Divanyolu Caddesi, across the street from where the Hippodrome once entertained the Ottoman population with chariot races. It is in the heart of Sultanahmet, the site of Istanbul’s top sites from Aya Sofya to the Blue Mosque to Tokapaki, the famed Ottoman palace.
Walk around Sultanahmet Square today and it’s filled with travelers from every corner of the world, some following little tour group flags. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Istanbul was much more isolated. Then came the Hippie Trail.
“The first thing people realized is these people were coming from space, the moon,” Adem said. “People came with the long beards and the long hair and the shorts and the guitars. Turkish people are very polite. They loved them, especially my father and uncle.”
Adem said many travelers showed up broke. The Colpans gave them money and the travelers always paid them back. Adem showed me a salt shaker that a traveler took on his way to India.
“He brought it back after 30 years,” he said. “He felt guilty. He said, ‘I’m sorry I took this.’”
Riding the Midnight Express
I caught up with Billy Hayes in Las Vegas where he has lived the last 10 years and has turned his five years in prison into almost a cottage industry.
Last year he wrote his fourth book, “Midnight Express: Epilogue,” about the years following his escape home to New York in 1975.
He has a one-man show, “Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” where he tells audiences around the world about his prison experience. He’s working on an eight-part series covering his earlier Istanbul drug runs and his escape on a rowboat from his prison island.
Despite prison, he has fond memories of Türkiye, particularly the Pudding Shop.
“People from all over the world were going east to west, west to east, and everyone stopped in Istanbul,” he told me over the phone. “‘What about this bus? Will it go to Kandahar? No, don’t go there. They’re fighting.’ It’s road knowledge. Anything I should know? In Istanbul, we did that in the Pudding Shop.”
Hayes actually returned to Istanbul in “Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Türkiye,” a 2016 documentary about his return to the city where he was imprisoned. Turkish officials invited him and during the stay, he visited the Pudding Shop with his crew.
Running to greet him was Idris Colpan.
“He’s one of the few people in Istanbul that profited off ‘Midnight Express,’” Hayes said with a laugh. “He thanked us.”